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Birds of Sanibel Island: A Comprehensive Guide

Sanibel Island Vacation Rentals
February 11, 2020

For any keen birdwatcher, the birds of Sanibel Island are a must-see. Sanibel Island is found in Lee County, Florida and covers the entire city of Sanibel, making this a small, but popular destination. In 1963, the Sanibel Causeway was built, making access to the island very easy. Easy access has made the island a very popular tourist destination, especially for those looking for beautiful shell beaches and interesting wildlife to see. 

Birding enthusiasts love visiting Sanibel Island for a variety of reasons. This includes the over 200 species of birds that can be found on the island. Over half of the island is covered in wildlife refuge which provides numerous ideal bird watching spots. Regardless of why bird lovers visit, the birds of Sanibel Island are a phenomenon that should be experienced by everyone. 

There’s so much to be considered when it comes to experiencing birds on Sanibel Island. Our complete guide below tells you everything you need to know to make your birding experience on Sanibel absolutely perfect.

What Types of Birds Are on Sanibel Island?

There are a lot of different birds to be found on the islands of Sanibel and nearby Captiva, making the region a great place for keen bird-watchers to visit. If you visit the area you can expect to see a wide variety of bird species who inhabit and visit the two islands. Some of these birds can be seen all year round, whereas others migrate to the area at certain times of the year. Whenever you visit, there’s always something to see. 

Great Egrets are tall, elegant, white birds with yellow beaks and black legs. During the Spring and Summer months, you can see fine, white, lacy feathers along the back of the bird. These are breeding plumes and were once prized by plume hunters. Now, hundreds of these birds enjoy the feeding grounds of the wildlife refuge. 

The Great Blue Heron is the largest of the wading birds found in the area, making it hard to miss. This bird can reach up to three or four feet high. It has a grey-blue body with a lighter head and a navy blue stripe above its eye. The beak is grey-black and the legs are green-yellow to blue. 

Roseate spoonbills are elegant pink bills that are often mistaken for flamingos. They stand at about two feet tall and have a grey beak which is shaped a little like a spatula. These birds can be seen in the spring and summer before they migrate to Florida bay and Tarpon Bay in the winter for nesting and rearing young. 

Other birds that you can watch in the area include:

  • Brown pelican- This is the most widely recognized coastal bird and can be seen diving into the water or perched atop a channel marker. 
  • White pelican- These are seen only in the winter and usually only in the upper parts of Pine Island Sound. 
  • Snowy Egret- These are smaller than the Great Egret but also have a white body and black legs. 
  • Reddish Egret- These are rarer than other wading birds but are lovely to see with its unconventional method of fishing. It dances, flaps and stumbles in order to confuse its prey before catching it. 

Across the island, there are many different birds to enjoy. Watch a wide variety of local birds feed, fly and interact with each other. The birds listed here are just a small selection of the birdlife found on Sanibel Island. It’s easy to see why this pretty island is such a popular vacation spot for bird-watchers and bird enthusiasts. 

Why Are There So Many Birds on Sanibel Island?Why Are There So Many Birds on Sanibel Island

Sanibel Island is known for its large population of beautiful migratory birds. In fact, there are over 250 birds recognized as being in Sanibel at different times of the year. But what is it about Sanibel Island that makes it so popular with birds? Sanibel Island has a variety of different habitats, all of which are ideal homes for different wildlife. 

Freshwater marshes are wetland habitats that are non-tidal and don’t contain saltwater. Freshwater marshes are good homes for many wading birds like herons and egrets and for waterfowl like ducks. Mangrove swamps provide a unique habitat for a large variety of fish, crustaceans, mollusks, and of course, birds. There are also areas of open water on the island, where all kinds of marine life can flourish. Water control structures throughout the area help to regulate water levels to make sure the island can provide the appropriate habitat for migrating birds. 

You’ll also find tidal flats and mudflats, where the level is so low when the tide goes out, there is no water left. These flats are the ideal feeding ground for shorebirds and wading birds alike, thanks to easily accessible insects and crustaceans. If you’re interested in finding songbirds, you can visit the areas of hardwood forest, where you can find Sea Grape trees, Strangler Figs, and the Gumbo Limbo trees. In shallow, sunny waters, you can find seagrass beds, which give shelter to young fish and other sea creatures. The freely available food also attracts birds, who will come to hunt. 

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Sanibel Island Bird Sanctuary

If you’re hoping to see birds on your trip to Sanibel Island, then you need to visit the JN Ding Darling National Wildlife and Bird Sanctuary. The refuge is on the north shore of Sanibel Island and was established in 1945 partially by President Harry S Truman, at the request of the Pulitzer-prize winning cartoonist Jay Norwood Darling. The refuge has 6400 acres of mangrove forest, submerged seagrass beds, marshes, and hardwood hammocks. It’s home to 245 species of birds, and can also be visited for walking trails and bike paths. 

If you’re visiting the Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge, there are some activities you shouldn’t miss. 

  1. Explore the trails on foot, by bike or by car. The most popular is the four-mile wildlife drive, as it is the most accessible and is faster to move to different areas.  
  2. Go hiking. There are five trails that branch off the wildlife drive of varying lengths and views, so there is something for everyone. 
  3. Take advantage of free events. The refuge has a variety of free educational programs including birding, wildlife tours, photography, lectures, and even kayaking.  
  4. Download the app. The Discover Ding app is a scavenger hunt style game to help you learn about and find the different fauna and flora of the refuge. 

The Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge is a popular tourist attraction for many reasons. It’s a great way out whether you want a walk with the children with great views or whether you’re a wildlife photographer hoping to get pictures of the some of the feathered locals of Sanibel Island. Pack your binoculars, your long lens, and your walking shoes, and spend the day being amazed by the sheer abundance of beautiful Sanibel Island wildlife that you can find. 

Ding Darling Birds

The Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge is home to over 245 species of bird throughout the year. The ‘big five’ that most bird watchers are excited to see are the American White Pelican, the Mangrove Cuckoo, the Reddish Egret, the Roseate Spoonbill, and the Yellow-Crowned Night-Heron. Some of these birds are easier to spot than others, whereas some will take some patience to find in the refuge. 

There are plenty of other beautiful birds to see in the refuge as well as the ‘big five’. You can see wading birds like the White Ibis, Green Heron, and Great Blue Heron. Commonly seen seabirds include Least Terns, Magnificent Frigatebirds, and Black Skimmer. If you like shorebirds, look out for Red Knots, Willets and Black-Bellied Plovers. You can even see American Kestrels, Bald Eagles, and Ospreys. 

One of the reasons you can see so many different birds in the Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge is that sheer size of the refuge. As it is so large, it covers a wide range of habitats, from mudflats to hardwood hammocks. With different habitats and feeding available, many different birds are attracted to the site, making this a dream for the keen bird enthusiast. 

Bird MigrationBird Migration

Sanibel Island attracts lots of different migratory birds. In January to March, many shorebirds, waterfowl, wading birds, passerines and raptors can be seen. Neotropical migratory birds can be seen and start to migrate through March. Osprey nesting reaches its peak in March, whereas adult spoonbills may start to leave the refuge in March to head to their own nesting grounds. In April to June, you can enjoy one of the best times for birding with an abundance of birdlife at the refuge. Shorebirds and colonial nesting birds are present, and neotropical migratory birds are still there too White pelicans start to move North in April. Many birds are nesting in this period, including the wading birds, Snowy Plovers, Yellow-Crowned Night Herons, and Black-Necked Stilts. 

Birding begins to slow down in July to September, but wading birds and some shorebirds can still be seen. Some early migrant birds head to the refuge. From October to December, you can still see shorebirds and colonial birds. White pelicans and other migrating birds start to arrive in greater numbers. In December, Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge takes their Annual Christmas Bird Count. 

Sanibel Island Bird Watching

Thanks to the subtropical climate, Sanibel Island is great for both birds and birdwatchers. The island is famous for the birdlife that lives on the island at least part of the year. The most popular spot for this is, of course, the JN Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge, where you can see a huge range of birds. You can head out on the Wildlife Drive to see wading birds, shorebirds and waterfowl who come to the area to feed. 

There are lots of places to bird watch, including the interior wetlands, the Center Tract, and the Sanibel Gardens Preserve. All these places have great walking trails for bird watchers. If you’re relaxing on the beaches, there are many birds to be seen here too. Remember that Sanibel prohibits hand-feeding of the birdlife. 

Best Time For Birding on Sanibel Island

In every season, there are beautiful birds to see on Sanibel Island. Whenever you come to the island, you can see year-round residents including herons, egrets, pelicans, ospreys, cormorants, and many more. However, much like the human visitors, some of the birds on the island are just passing through. During their seasonal migrations, birds from across South and North America follow migration routes that lead them to southwest Florida as a stopover on their way over the Gulf of Mexico. Depending on which birds you are hoping to see, the best time to visit Sanibel Island, as the aviary residents will differ in different seasons.  

In Winter and early Spring, you will see the Sora and Red-Breasted Merganser, but not the Black-Whiskered Vireo, which doesn’t arrive until the Summer. Robins only visit in the depths of winter, whereas the Indigo Bunting doesn’t come until Spring. To see the largest variety of birds, you should visit between January and June, but if there is a certain bird you’re desperate to see, check first to make sure it will actually be there. 

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What Are the Best Places For Bird Watching on Sanibel Island?

The Wildlife Drive appears on every list of recommended bird-watching spots in Sanibel Island. You can take a leisurely drive around the Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge, and see Pelicans, Roseate Spoonbills and many shorebirds from the comfort of your car. Many unexpected birds can be seen from the Drive too. Not long ago, a Great White Pelican was spotted in the refuge, which is nearly 4000 miles from their usual habitat. Other rare birds sighted in the area include the Black and Yellow Rail, Whippoorwill, American Avocet, and Black-Necked Slit. 

While the Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge is the best known of the bird-watching spots on the island, there are many other places where you can watch some incredible birds. Whether you want to go hiking on some of the bird-watching trails or see birds from a boat, there are lots of options to get out your binoculars and see some amazing birdlife. 

Some other great birdwatching sites include: 

  • Sanibel Lighthouse- It’s the only place where you can see migrating hawks in the Spring and Fall, as well as warblers, thrushes, and other birds.
  • Bunche Beach Preserve- This is a popular spot where locals go to see plovers, Reddish Egrets, and shorebirds.
  • Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve- A spot that’s a bit more inland than many others 
  • The Periwinkle Preserve- This local favorite spot has a migratory bird walking trail where you can see many birds.  
  • Sanibel Gardens-  Great walking trails where you can see many interesting birds are littered throughout this ecological favorite.. 

There are several preserves on the island where you can see many wild birds, but beautiful birdlife can be enjoyed all over the island. You can enjoy a vacation, with relaxing on the beach, walking through beautiful scenery, and still see many different birds. The island is also fantastic for wildlife photographers, with lots of rare sightings to capture forever. 

Owls on Sanibel Island

Owls are not one of the more famous bird sightings on Sanibel Island, but they can be seen around the area. Burrowing owls can be found throughout Florida, including on Sanibel Island. These adorable owls live in burrows, often taking over empty tortoise nests, prairie dog holes or human excavations. If you’re exploring the island after dark, you can see the Great Horned Owl. Listen out for their distinctive call which can be heard from several miles away. These owls are fierce hunters, taking on fish and amphibians sometimes up to two or three times their size. The Barn Owl can also be seen on Sanibel at night. They hunt silently, which can make them hard to spot. Many nesting boxes have been put up across Sanibel to help boost the local population. 

The best time to see owls on Sanibel Island is at night when they will be awake and hunting. Keep an eye out for nesting boxes and burrows and keep your ears open for the hunting calls of the Great Horned Owl. There are lots of other interesting birds to see at night too, so it is well worth taking an evening walk. 

Sanibel Island Flamingos

While flamingos can be seen on Sanibel (usually in the Ding Darling Wildlife Reserve), they aren’t one of the more common sightings. The American Flamingo can be seen in the reserve all year round, but are listed by the reserve as a rare or accidental sighting. What is more common is the Roseate Spoonbill, which, with their pink coloring, is often mistaken for a flamingo. 

Roseate Spoonbills are interesting for several reasons: 

  • Unlike flamingos, who become pink from their crustacean rich diet, Roseate Spoonbills are naturally pink. Their color intensifies with age. 
  • Spoonbills sweep their bill back and forth through the water and snap it shut when they feel food swim by.  
  • These birds can grow up to 38 inches tall and have a 47 - 52-inch wingspan. They can weigh up to 4 pounds. 
  • They can be found in estuaries, marshes, and mangrove swamps around the refuge and across Sanibel Island. 
  • Their unique spoon-shaped bills are also used in a courtship dance, where they exchange nesting materials, dancing, and bill clapping. 
  • Roseate Spoonbills don’t breed until they reach three years old when they have reached full size and grown their breeding plumage. 

Roseate Spoonbills are one of the most popular birds to watch out for on Sanibel Island. If you were hoping for flamingos, you will have to hope you get very lucky to see them, but this spoonbill is just as elegant, interesting and beautiful to look at. Their pink color, elegant, long legs and the unique spoon-shaped bills that give them their name are always interesting to spot. These birds have been badly hit by poaching and habitat loss, although conservation efforts have boosted their numbers back to around 4000 breeding pairs across the Gulf Coast of the United States. 

Birds of North Captiva Island

Sanibel Island is the more famous spot, but keen birdwatchers visiting the area shouldn’t miss out on visiting North Captiva Island too. Like Sanibel, North Captiva is located in Lee County, just offshore in the Gulf Of Mexico. This gives it the same subtropical climate that Sanibel island has, attracting the same kinds of migratory birdlife. About half the island is owned by the State of Florida and is part of a State Park, which is a great place to see some interesting birds. If you want a quieter birdwatching experience, North Captiva could be a good choice. The island can only be reached by boat or small plane, and a regular passenger ferry runs every two hours to serve tourists and locals. 

Like Sanibel Island, North Captiva is sometimes home to Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, Reddish Egrets, and more. Some of these birds can be seen there all year round, whereas others use the island as a stop-off during their migration time. While you’re visiting the island, you can enjoy the relaxed pace of life while you look for these beautiful birds. The island has no paved roads, and the only way to get around is on foot or by bike or golf cart. 

The island was originally part of Captiva Island until a hurricane in 1921 split the island into two pieces. Captiva and North Captiva are separated by two channels named Redfish pass and Captiva Pass. Thanks to being cut off from the mainland, the island developed slowly and didn’t get commercial electricity or phone lines until the 1980s. 

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Other Activities For Bird Lovers on Sanibel IslandOther Activities For Bird Lovers on Sanibel Island

Sanibel Island has an abundance of wildlife, and the locals take care of that wildlife very seriously. This means that there are lots of options for nature walks and eco-tours available on the island. On these tours, you can admire some of the local wildlife and birdlife, and learn how the islanders are working to protect and preserve the animal inhabitants of the island. There are tours to see dolphins, fishing trips, nature cruises, historical walks, and guided botanical tours. While you’re exploring and learning about the island, you’ll also be able to see and learn about the amazing local birds. 

There are many fantastic ways to see more of the island and its birdlife. 

  1. Rent a bike and ride the Wildlife Drive, Rabbit Road Trail or the Civic Core Circle. Biking on Sanibel Island is a popular activity for residents and visitors alike.
  2. Rent a segway for an unusual, but great fun, way to ride around the island and see more of it.  
  3. Book a guided tour to walk around some of the interesting local flora and fauna. 
  4. Book a cruise for dolphin encounters, shelling, wildlife sightseeing, manatee spotting and more. 

If you’re interested in learning more about the conservation efforts on the island, visit Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation. The SCCF manages over 1300 acres of land on the island and offers educational programs for all ages, including beach walks, kayak tours, and wading trips. These are great ways to see some birds and learn how you can help them. 

SCCF’s Nature Center has four miles of trails where you can enjoy a short stroll or a longer, more challenging walk through the heart of Sanibel Island. Inside the center, you’ll find interactive exhibits, maps, and videos that will teach you about the challenge of maintaining the island and its water quality. The SCCF also runs the Native Landscapes and Garden Center, which is a great way to learn about encouraging birds, butterflies, and other wildlife in your own backyard. You can walk through the demonstration gardens to get ideas that you could try at home to support the local bird population in your area. 

What Is There To Eat On Sanibel Island?

Sanibel Island has an excellent reputation for food. Restaurateurs and chefs come to Sanibel Island from all over the world to add their individual influences to the melting pot of the island’s restaurants. This means the island can show off some of the most inventive cuisines around. No matter what kind of food you enjoy, you’ll find something to try and enjoy on Sanibel. There are over 50 restaurants on the island, from family-run ice cream shops to top dining restaurants. 

One of the best cuisines to try is seafood. Being an island, Sanibel takes its seafood seriously. You can enjoy incredibly fresh seafood all over the island, and you’d be foolish not to try some local fish dishes. The island also caters well for family dining, gluten-free diners, diners looking for a pet-friendly restaurant, outdoor dining, and dining with a view. There are also plenty of lounges and sports bars if you’re in search of drinks as well as food. 

What Else Is There To Do On Sanibel? 

The wildlife might be one of the major attractions on the island, but there’s plenty of other things to do on Sanibel Island. The area is very beautiful and has plenty to offer solo travelers, couples, and families looking for a relaxing vacation. If you want a break from bird watching, try one of the many other island activities which will make your holiday unforgettable.

  • Sanibel Island has some of the best beaches in Florida
  • Try watersports like kayaking, canoeing, parasailing, and more. 
  • Book a cruise to see the area from the water.
  • Go fishing offshore, inshore, from the piers and beaches or in the back bays. 
  • Collect shells. Sanibel is regarded as the best shelling spot in North America.

Sanibel Island also has good options for shopping. There are dozens of unique stores and galleries where you can find a one-of-a-kind island souvenir. There are plenty of independent stores to interest you, whether you’re shopping for souvenirs or are in need of beach supplies and swimwear. To learn more about the shopping options on the island, check out our Sanibel Shopping Guide.

Plan Your Vacation Sanibel Island Vacation With Royal Shell

Every year, millions of people from around the world visit Southwest Florida, including Sanibel Island. Royal Shell Vacation Rentals is a family-owned company that has been operating in the area for over 25 years. We have managed more rental properties in the area than any other company in the region. Royal Shell is committed to excellence, and work hard to offer a personal approach and boutique-style to our operations. 

If you’re looking for somewhere to stay on Sanibel Island, Royal Shell has an expert team to help you plan your vacation. Royal Shell’s Vacation Advisors live and work in the area, so they will be able to find you the best place to say and give you local advice for what to do when you’re there. From quaint cottage rentals on Sanibel Island to Sanibel Island townhome rentals bursting with amenities, we'll help you find exactly what you're looking for. 

If you’re booking a trip to see the birds of Sanibel Island, then let us find the perfect Sanibel Island Vacation Rental for you. Check our availability now or contact one of our vacation rental specialists and they'll take care of the rest.

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